Why do public engagement? Diamond Nine activity

This week I had the pleasure of attending the BIG ‘How to train researchers’ event at Newcastle University. It was an excellent and thought-provoking day and I took away a lot of useful tidbits and ideas.

As our focus was on improving how we support researchers to do public engagement one of my favourite sessions was the ‘activities circus’ where we were able to visit various brave souls who had activities or exercises they have tried and tested for our perusal. One of the ones I enjoyed was the ‘Diamond Nine’ of public engagement – a hands-on tool for facilitating discussion around researchers’ reasons for doing public engagement.

I was so inspired I’m incorporating it into my next training session; I’m looking forward to finding out what the researchers prioritise and hoping that the conversations will spur some introspection on their part!

I’ve included a print-out of the activity and instructions below – if you give it a try let me know what you think!

PDF: Why Do Public Engagement Diamond Nine

The Best Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

The man in the audience was shifty-eyed. I thought my talk about swamp-dwelling leeches, while slightly gruesome, had been going well but he seemed to have other things on his mind. I liked enthusing people about the diversity and creative adaptations of the species that made the swamp their home. I finished up, eliciting the usual ‘eww’s and ‘cool’s, and my audience crowded around the table to see the artifacts I had brought along. The alligator skull was a perennial favourite, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse. The shifty-eyed man remained, however, along with a friend. He approached.

“Excuse me, I was just wondering… is there such thing as a real Pokémon?”

“I’m sorry?” I got a lot of strange and interesting questions working as an education assistant at a zoo, but that one was new to me. “A what?”

“A real live Pokémon. You know, like in the game.”

“I… er…” Working in outreach makes you good at thinking on your toes, and I’m happy to say I didn’t stare at him in bemusement for more than a second. Maybe two. “You know, it’s certainly not something I’ve heard of existing in the real world.”

“But aren’t you a zoologist? Don’t you know about things like this?”

“I do, but I’ve never heard of a real live Pokémon. I don’t know if such a thing exists.”

“Well,” he said, eyes darting from side to side before he leaned closer, “I think it does, because I was listening to the news earlier and they said Paris Hilton had been bitten by some sort of Pokémon. So I just wondered if you knew about that.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” I said, quite honestly. “But that’s interesting. I’ll have to go look it up!”

He seemed satisfied at this even if I couldn’t confirm for certain, and left not long after. After sharing the story with some coworkers we decided we definitely had to look up what had befallen Paris Hilton.

It turns out she had been bitten by her pet kinkajou. I suppose it does sound an awful lot like Pikachu…

Psychologists highlight academic terms to avoid

Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases

Six decades ago, two prominent psychiatrists bemoaned the tendency of writers to use “jargon to blur implausible concepts and to convey the impression that something real is being disclosed” (Cleckley and Thigpen, 1955, p. 335). We hope that our article offers a friendly, albeit greatly belated, corrective in this regard.

Ignite: Entropy

How would you explain a scientific concept in five minutes? Would it help to have slides? What if the slides automatically advance?

This is the concept behind Ignite talks, which are held at volunteer-organized events around the world. Explaining any concept clearly and simply is a challenge, but the strict timing of Ignite talks is especially tricky! I was fortunate enough to be asked to give one last year for the Science Gallery, and since they’ve now put video online I thought I would share it with you all here:

I spoke about entropy, which is an old favorite topic on this blog. And the Science Gallery has quite a few other Ignite talks online for you to peruse. But I think we’d all do well to try to follow the Ignite motto: “Enlighten us, but make it quick!”

What science communicators can learn from #ThatDress

If you were on Twitter, Facebook, or any type of social media last night you were probably inundated with one of two things: the live llama chase in Arizona or #ThatDress. As fascinating as I find camelids, I’m going to talk about the more polarising of the two memes.

that dress

So if you haven’t seen it, there it is. What colour is it? Families, classrooms, and friends feeds are divided on the answer, and it’s sent countless people onto the Google results page for colourblindness. Various experts have weighed in with their opinions and technology has been rolled out to tweak, correct, and perfect the picture. Already there are comprehensive scientific articles and videos about why we perceive the colours differently and the fascinating subject of how humans process and interpret light hitting the back of our eyeballs.

What I find interesting about the phenomenon is the completely organic way it came about, and how a few smart cookies jumped on it to do some science communication. The original post went up on Twitter and within hours it was circulating around the world, drawing comments and creating debates among friends and strangers alike. ‘Experts’ (who have now been proven wrong) shared their opinions and amateurs griped and argued in the comments section of various articles. So what made this such a widely-spread discussion?

Firstly and most importantly, I think it was because it was something everyone could have an opinion of. If you could see the picture, you could form an opinion (based on what the rods and cones in your eyes told you), and that was all you needed to join the fray. Experiences that relate to inherent human perception are great jumping-off points for science communication because they are shared among many backgrounds and profiles. There’s a reason sex, death and food are common popular science subjects – they’re rather unavoidable topics and ones we all share!

Secondly, the potential opinions were so different from one another. Blue and black or white and gold are quite distinct, hardly the difference between ‘is this reddish-pink or pinkish-red?’. Once you stated your opinion you were firmly in one camp or another, and you needed no prior knowledge or expertise to back it up. The debate was accessible, something everyone felt comfortable taking part in. Sometimes science engagement can require a level of knowledge of a subject that is off-putting to non-experts. #ThatDress has no such problem.

So what can we learn from this? I’d say it’s the fact that the most gripping science communication is relatable, approachable, and adaptable. It needs to have a topic that interests people, that relates to experiences or knowledge they already have. It needs to be something they feel comfortable forming opinions and talking about (engagement is a two-way street, after all, and a conversation is far better than a lecture!). And most importantly, it needs to keep its finger on the popular pulse, ready to jump on the zeitgeist of the moment. Sure, a sustained campaign of building interest is important, but there’s nothing like hooking into a meme to reach millions of people who might otherwise not have time for a bit of science communication.

Innovative Technologies

I work in nanoscience, and a lot of new materials and devices are developed where people ask, what is going to be the application of this? Can this displace an established technology (like silicon computer chips) or create a new market? And I was recently reminded of a great quote in response:

The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology always have been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.

That was said by Herbert Kroemer in his Nobel lecture, and it bears thinking about in many contexts both within science and in the broader world. When you’re doing something new, it may not fit neatly into the established hierarchies of technology, science, or industry. That can be good, and in fact it can be groundbreaking, like a present you didn’t know you wanted! Of course, it’s still important to think about how your work fits into the broader picture as it already is, but I think it’s always good to get a reminder to check your premises, that innovation can create its own new niches.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about science! Literally, here I am talking about science, the quantum world, scientists, and answering audience questions from a kindly bunch at Pint of Science this May in Dublin. There is also a bit of a surprise in the middle.